Saturday, May 17, 2014

Are you ready for the Way?—Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2: 4–9; John 14: 1–12
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Last week, Jesus called himself the sheepfold, the gate through which the true shepherds and their sheep could be saved. Today, in a completely different context, he says that he is the way. What does this mean?
The Gospel of John is the most theological of the gospels, so we can expect to grapple with Jesus’ words here. And much of it simply has to be accepted as a matter of faith. When Jesus says that he is the Truth, we have to accept that this is a mystery. John calls Jesus the Logos—that’s a Greek word that indicates that he is the word or thought of God the Father. Everything that the Father conceives in His intellect is passed to the Son because the Son is the one complete and perfect image that God the Father has of himself. When Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father in me,” he speaks the truth because he is the fullness of truth with and in the Father from the beginning. That’s understandably difficult for us to grasp.
When He says that he is the life, we again have to accept on faith that He created us and gave life to us. He continues to give us this life through his body and blood. The baptism he proclaimed raises us from death to life. His own death destroyed death forever to bring us eternal life. In chapter 6 of this gospel, after Jesus has made the scandalous suggestion that people must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he turns to the twelve apostles and asks if they too will leave him, and Peter says, “To where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This they have to accept on faith, even though they don’t know where it will lead them. So, too, do we accept all of this on faith.
He is life. And he is truth. As difficult as these claims are, the apostles don’t question him but simply accept them on faith.
It’s strange, then, what causes the confusion. Jesus says that they can follow him because they know the way. Thomas asks point blank, “How can we know the way?” And the response is baffling.
I am the way.”
What does this mean? What is Jesus claiming to be? To a Jew in first century Palestine, this approaches blasphemy. “The way” is how they spoke of the Torah and the Law of Moses, but here’s Jesus among a bunch of Jews saying, “I am the way.” Not the Law of Moses. Not temple sacrifice and observance. But He himself. That was the scandal of Christianity for early Jews—that Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That claim was appalling to them.
In our own time, I think we have become a bit complacent—a bit too sure of the gospel, even if we as Catholics aren’t the best at proclaiming it. But the truth is becoming a scandal again. To claim that Christ is the exclusive way to the Father—to God—is these days scandalous. To suggest that God’s commandments are real and that there are real consequences for ignoring them—that is scandalous.
The age of a lukewarm Christianity and Catholic faith is coming to an end. We have to face the scandal of a man who claimed to be the only way to the Father, who claimed to be the way, and the truth, and the life. It won’t do anymore to claim to be a Christian but not to recognize the claims Christ makes on us. It won’t do anymore to only be committed to the benefits of the Christian faith. We will soon have to commit ourselves to the liabilities.
That, of course, was the case from the beginning. To truly embrace Christ and take him as savior has always been costly. Jesus didn’t tell us to pick up our golf clubs and follow him. He didn’t tell us to hop in our Lexus and follow him. He didn’t say, “Follow me downtown to my great condo in the Royal Plaza.” He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have earthly goods in this life, but understand that when God blesses us, he also obligates us. Those of us who have done well, we are obligated to provide for others. And no, we don’t get to let Uncle Sam do that work for us. The government is not our proxy in loving our neighbor. We have to do that ourselves. And that obligation extends to every aspect of our lives. We can’t put our faith in a box with our Sunday best and take it out for only one hour on the weekends. It must be lived, and it must be lived on God’s terms, not on our own.
So Jesus shows us a way, and whether it’s a way that looks attractive, it is the way that leads to the Father. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering. But it is also the way of glory. Jesus is the way, and we follow the way by doing as he did: by loving our enemies, by praying for those who persecute us, by giving away all we have to follow him. That’s what it means to accept and follow the way.
Our reading from Acts points us to two exemplars of those who embrace the way. The Twelve chose the seven, and the seven were ordained with the laying on of hands, which is the traditional form of ordination. Two of these ordained are the subject of stories almost immediately, and both of their stories tell us what our response to Jesus should be. First we have Stephen, considered by the Church to be the first deacon martyr. In chapter 7 of Acts, Stephen witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection and then is himself martyred. He imitates Christ by testifying regardless of the cost, and he follows Jesus in his death by asking God to forgive those who murder him. Just after that event, we hear of Phillip traveling to Samaria, where he preaches, heals, and baptizes. He does precisely what Jesus did and what Jesus commanded.
So both of these men follow the way of Jesus by doing what he did and what he commanded the Apostles to do: to preach the gospel and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St. Stephen was ready to pay up in full. We know the stories of the other Apostles. Eleven out of the 12 were martyred for their faith, and Christians existed under the threat of persecution for hundreds of years. And so history repeats itself. Christians right now are the number one persecuted population throughout the world.
The message in today’s readings is clear. If you accept Jesus as your savior, there are demands that faith makes on your life. The gift of grace is free, but the commitment of faith will cost you, and it may cost you everything.

Are we ready to pay that price? Do we recognize Jesus—the way, the truth and the life? Are we ready to pick up our cross and follow him?
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